I remember hearing once that the two things that Canadians fear the most are death and public speaking. So I suppose that not too many people would like to be in my position this morning, of speaking (publicly) about death. Yes, that’s what I said. I’m going to preach about death this morning.
And it’s not because we’ve just had Hallowe’en, and I’ve got ghosts and ghouls on the brain. And it’s not because I’ve been watching too much CSI lately. In fact, it is because death seems to be the major theme in our scripture texts today. More specifically, these texts, and the context of a Remembrance Day service, and several experiences that I’ve had over the last month, have got me thinking about the power of death.
The fact that our greatest fears in life are death and public speaking can be somewhat amusing. But for those who don’t like to get up and preach or lecture or give a speech, they can usually find ways to avoid it. Death, on the other hand, is inevitable. It’s as inevitable as “death and taxes,” as they say.
Death happens to us all eventually, but it is so often associated with anxiety, pain, despair, and trauma. Death can be so disturbing that we don’t like to talk about it. We use phrases like “he passed away” or “she moved on” or “he went to a better place”, when what we really mean is that “she died.” We use hushed voices when we do have to talk about it, and many people avoid the topic of their own death so carefully that they fail to make the kind of plans for death that would make their dying so much easier on their families.
Why is death so scary? I’m not sure. Maybe because life is good, and we don’t want it to end. Maybe because there might be some pain or discomfort involved in dying. Maybe because of that big question mark around what life is like after death. As Christians, we believe in life after death — eternal life. At least, we believe in it most of the time. Who hasn’t had their doubting moments? But even when we do believe, there’s still a lot of mystery to it, isn’t there?
Well, the power of death shows up quite strongly in our scripture texts today. We see how Lazarus’ sisters and his community, and even his friend Jesus were affected by his death. We listen to their despair and anguish at his dying, and their regret that Jesus hadn’t arrived sooner to help him. They didn’t want Lazarus to die, but they were powerless to stop it. And though we have much greater medicine than they did in Jesus’ time, even with all our technology and all our medication and all our medical expertise, sometimes we are powerless against death too. The greatest doctor in the world still has to say, some of the time, “We did everything we could. I’m very sorry.” And like Mary and Martha, and Jesus himself, we are grieved and saddened by the deaths of our loved ones, and it is natural to weep like Jesus did.
The power of death can be positive, of course. Being wary of death can prompt us to avoid risky behaviours like driving too fast or jumping out of planes. It can encourage us to look after our health — to eat properly and get some exercise. But fear of death can also be stifling and can have a debilitating effect on our lives. We can get so nervous that we avoid risks and miss out on opportunities. We can get so obsessed with health concerns that we end up spending most of our time in doctors’ offices. We can worry so much that anxiety causes us an early heart attack.
Fear of death can certainly ruin our lives. But death’s power is not only exerted upon us by our own fear and anxiety, fear of death is a tool that we use against one another. When we’re angry, we rarely say, “I’m going to be mean to you,” or “I’m going to ignore you.” Instead we threaten, “I’m going to kill you,” using fear of death as a weapon against our neighbour or friend.
People also draw on the power of death whenever they engage in an armed robbery, whenever they wield a knife or point a gun. Whether they intend to use the weapon in their hand or not, what they do use as a weapon is fear of death — forcing their victim to do what they want. And certainly, wherever there is war or armed conflict, or terrorism taking place, people and nations are using the fear of death to try to get their way or accomplish their purpose.
When Jesus raised Lazarus from death, he demonstrated that God is more powerful than death. The man who had been dead for four days, whose body had started to smell, got up and walked around, and was alive. Because God is more powerful than death.
But the truly amazing thing that happens in the story of Jesus is not really that he brings Lazarus back to life. It is a pretty neat miracle, and I’m sure that I would have been quite impressed if I had seen it. But the bigger miracle comes later, and it’s the one that I see impacting the lives of so many faithful people today. It’s not so much that God is more powerful than death, but that Jesus conquered the fear of death. He did that, not when he raised Lazarus, but when he went to his own death on the cross.
He must have been scared. How could anyone not be scared? Though he was fully divine, he was also fully human, and he knew that he was going to get nailed to a tree. And he didn’t run. And he didn’t fight. And somehow, he managed to forgive the people who had put him there.
I am constantly amazed by the courage and humility of Jesus on his way to the cross. But I am also amazed at the witness and example of the Christian saints I encounter day by day within our faith community who follow in his way. They are the ones who are able to speak openly and candidly about their impending deaths, making plans and saying their goodbyes. They are the ones who are refusing further medical treatments when it doesn’t make sense to keep on fighting death anymore, when a good quality of life for a short time is a better option.
They are the ones who are not raging against the dying of the light. The fear of death does not have power over them. They are free to live and to die in the confidence and trust of God.
Others who follow in the way of Jesus and are not controlled by the fear of death are able to love and risk in ways that would not be possible otherwise. When we’re scared of death, self-preservation becomes our top priority, and it dissuades us from doing all kinds of good things. We want to help the poor, but we may not want to walk around in that dangerous neighbourhood where the poor live. We want to care for the sick, but we may not want to risk getting infected by them. We want an end to war, but we may not want to go and serve as a peace-keeper in Afghanistan, or join a Christian Peacemaker team in Iraq. We may not want to be the person to walk with Palestinian children through Israeli check-points each day to make sure that they get safely to school. This is one of many things that Christians are doing through the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Program. And it’s not the kind of thing that a person can do when the fear of death has power over them and their life.
Both the prophet Isaiah and the author of the Book of Revelation spoke of a day when death and mourning, pain and tears would be no more. From the context of exile and persecution, these prophetic voices spoke of the hope that they had in God. They believed that God’s plan would come to fruition. God’s promises would be fulfilled, and human lives — all human lives and all the world — would be freed from the tyranny of death. No more war. No more death. No more fear of death.
Reflecting on our world today, and perhaps even on our personal experience, we may be longing for the prophetic vision to be fulfilled, for the Kingdom of God to come in its fullness. And the good news for us is that the Kingdom is coming. It’s here, and it’s breaking in! We see it in Jesus — absolutely! We see it in the dead being raised, the sick being healed. We see it in the way that Jesus faced death — with confidence and hope in God — not in fear. But we also see it in faithful people around the world and right here among us who are following in his way. They are facing death — yes — but death has lost its victory. Death has lost its sting, because we know that God is more powerful, and fear will not consume us. Thanks be to God.